Teaching _The First Thanksgiving_

Jonathan Den Hartog

The semester is winding down--there's just a stack of blue books in front of me, along with a few random essays and an independent study project. I almost begin to believe there is a summer break within reach.

At this time of the semester, then, further reflection on recent teaching experience seems appropriate.

Several years ago, I pointed to R. Tracy McKenzie's book The First Thanksgiving. At the time, I voiced appreciation for the book--it's excellent--but I wondered how I could work it into my teaching.

This semester, I gave it a try.

In the Spring Semester, I teach our History Methods class for majors and minors--usually freshmen and sophomores but an occasional upperclassman slips in, too.

After spending the class talking about the issues of historical thinking, sources, and historiography, I deployed The First Thanksgiving as a way of "wrapping up" the course. For me, the book tied together all those themes.

The value of the book for teaching comes from the fact that it is explicit in its methods. It not only provides a narrative about the First Thanksgiving, it is clear in describing for non-specialists how and why the ideas are put together. Separate chapters emphasize evidence, historical context, taking the Pilgrims on their own terms, the foreignness of the past vs. contemporary uses of the past, and changing interpretations. McKenzie has done a great job in demonstrating historical thinking applied to an easily-recognized event.

One additional topic that could prove worth discussing in many classes would be McKenzie's writing from a confessional perspective. McKenzie is up-front in his identity as an evangelical Protestant, and in fact he consciously shapes the entire book out of those presuppositions. Additionally, a burden from the book is to address McKenzie's own faith community and how it handles "saints" from the past.

To handle the book, I blocked out several class periods. I guided the discussion and found that the best way to organize student reflection was to un-weave three strands in the book. So, we built our discussion around what the book helps us learn about the Pilgrims themselves, the methods McKenzie uses and discusses, and the pieces of contemporary moral and religious reflection he offers.

Students reflected on all three, although I was a bit surprised at how invested they were in the narrative. This is perhaps a credit to McKenzie's writing style. Getting to method and moral concerns took more prodding. Still, the conversation was valuable.

Before I use the book again, I'll have to address two issues. First, I will have to reexamine class pacing. Student comments indicated they felt handling the book was rushed. I will have to see if I can clear more space in the syllabus to let student understanding percolate. Second, I'm still not sure if it makes sense to use the book as a "wrap up" or to deploy it throughout the course on each of the issues we touch on. My one worry is that students would get sick of the Pilgrims by Week 8 and miss the larger points McKenzie is trying to make and which he traces across chapters.

So, I hope to use the book again, but I will need to refine my approach. Fortunately, that's one more use for the summer.

I'll close with questions: what other books have readers found work well for teaching a Methods class or making methodology clear? And, if you've used McKenzie's book, what has been your experience?


John G. Turner said…
If you use it again, I have to suggest that toward the end of the fall semester would almost certainly be advisable. You could even require students to plan and consume a 1621 meal as a final project.

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